Irony Repeats Itself: Reconsidering Reinhold Niebuhr in the Trump Era

Still from An American Conscience: The Reinhold Niebuhr Story, PBS

For the third time in this young century, Reinhold Niebuhr is getting another splash of attention. It happened last in 2008, when presidential candidate Barack Obama said that Niebuhr had deeply influenced him. It happened before that in 2003, when the Bush Administration invaded Iraq for a sloppy list of fear-mongering reasons and a chorus of foreign policy realists said it was time to rediscover Niebuhr. Now a superb new film by Martin Doblmeier, An American Conscience: The Reinhold Niebuhr Story, is touring on university campuses and at conferences and religious congregations. The film aired on PBS stations in April, and a companion book written by the film’s principal consultant, Jeremy Sabella, was published in March.

Reinhold Niebuhr became the most influential American theologian of the twentieth century by vigorously addressing every social and political crisis of his time. He began his career as a pro-war interventionist during World War I, converted to Social Gospel pacifism in the early 1920s, embraced Norman Thomas Socialism in the late 1920s, dropped pacifism for Marxist reasons in the early 1930s, implored Americans to fight fascism in 1940, dropped Socialism in the mid-1940s, joined the Democratic Party establishment in the late-1940s, mythologized the Cold War in the late 1940s and early 1950s, reconsidered the Cold War in the late 1950s, and stunned many Niebuhrians, in the mid-1960s, by opposing the Vietnam War.

Any attempt to capture his extraordinary life, thought, and career has to show how and why he changed so many times, and why he attained such a commanding stature in social ethics. Doblmeier pulls it off adeptly, mixing snippets of Niebuhr’s writing, archival photos, and interviews with Elisabeth Sifton (Niebuhr’s daughter), Andrew Young, Jimmy Carter, David Brooks, Cornel West, Susannah Heschel, Stanley Hauerwas, military historian Andrew Bacevich, former Indianapolis mayor William Hudnut, Niebuhrian ethicists Ronald Stone and Robin Lovin, religious historians K. Healan Gaston, Mark Massa, Andrew Finstuen, and me. The film starts with the Niebuhr of the early Cold War, explaining that America once had a social ethicist who made the cover of Time and gave advice to the State Department. Then it peels back to a chronological telling of Niebuhr’s life and career.

Niebuhr attained fame by blasting the moral idealism of liberal Protestant church leaders. In the 1920s he chafed at Social Gospel idealism while calling for more of it, not knowing what else to say. In the 1930s he urged church leaders to throw off their moralism to join the class struggle against a dying capitalist order. In the 1940s he urged church leaders to throw off their moralism to support the armed struggle against Fascism. In the 1950s he urged them to throw off their moralism to support America’s Cold War against Communism. In every case it mattered that there was a powerful, ecumenical, culturally dominant Protestant establishment to criticize. Niebuhr took for granted that liberal Protestantism had immense cultural influence and it was his group. Otherwise his ferocious criticism of it would not have mattered.

Brooks puckishly observes in the film that political converts offend their old friends and their new allies. The old friends hate them for breaking ranks and the new allies hate them even more for being untrustworthy and weak. Niebuhr’s courage to change was one of his chief strengths, although some things about him did not change. He always aspired to realism, even as a pacifist. He thrived on paradox almost to the point of treating it as a criterion of truth. He never relinquished the defining Social Gospel conviction that Christianity needed to be a force for peace, social change, and social justice. And he never relinquished his liberal positions about religious authority, Christian myth, Christology, the role of reason in theology, and higher criticism of the Bible. But Niebuhr attacked Social Gospel idealism so vehemently that he was usually construed as an opponent of the Social Gospel itself, and his later theology embraced Augustinian tropes about original sin and divine transcendence, such that he was usually construed as theologically neo-orthodox.

He joined the faculty of Union Theological Seminary in 1928, teaching in a field—social ethics—that had no history or basis apart from the Social Gospel. The film explains that the Union faculty did not want him at first, although Niebuhr soon won over the students and faculty. He was a Social Gospel Socialist when he got there; then the terrible wreckage of the Great Depression drove him to Marxism. What did it mean to be a social ethicist if one did not believe in redeemed institutions, the progressive character of history, or an idealistic theology of social salvation?

Niebuhr’s answer in his greatest book, Moral Man and Immoral Society (1932), launched a new era in American theology and social ethics. Politics is about struggling for power. Human groups never willingly subordinate their interests to the interests of others. Liberal denials of this truism are stupid. Morality belongs to the sphere of individual action. On occasion, individuals rise above self-interest, motivated by compassion or love, but groups never overcome the power of self-interest and collective egotism that sustains their existence. Since there is no such thing as a moral group, the Social Gospel attempt to moralize society was not only futile, but desperately lacking intelligence.

Niebuhr contended through Franklin Roosevelt’s first term and most of his second term that history would either move forward to revolutionary socialism or backward to fascist barbarism. There was no third way; capitalism was finished; FDR was kidding himself. The New Deal was every bit as stupid and self-deceiving as a typical Social Gospel sermon, and for the same reasons. Niebuhr said that liberal Protestantism needed to turn to the left politically and to the right theologically. In the early going he was clear about his politics and vague about his theology; by the end of the decade he had settled on his theology and begun to waver about his politics.

When Niebuhr delivered the Gifford Lectures in 1940, he was still a state Socialist. Equating socialization with nationalization, he wanted state planners to replicate the pricing decisions of markets and government planners to organize an economy not linked by markets. Then he began to pull back. If FDR could enact most of the Socialist Party platform in two years, why stick with the Socialist Party? Niebuhr’s Marxism gave him reasons not to switch to an ethically based socialism, and in 1940 the Socialist Party opposed intervening in World War II, so Niebuhr resigned. Previously he had been consumed with one principle of justice, equality. Then he judged that a realistic struggle for justice had to give at least equal priority to order and freedom, which, for Niebuhr, required backing off from the struggle for economic equality.

His major work of political philosophy, The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness, was published in 1944. Niebuhr said that modern American liberals were spiritual cousins of John Locke, Adam Smith, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Thomas Paine, G.W.F. Hegel and all true-believing Marxists. All were children of light who believed that the conflict between self-interest and the general interest could be resolved. Locke’s social contract, Smith’s harmonizing invisible hand, and Rousseau’s general will needed only minimal restraints on human egotism, because Locke, Smith, and Rousseau had immense confidence in reason and/or nature. Hegel believed that his philosophy synthesized the national and universal interests. Marxists even believed that no state would be necessary after the proletarian revolution occurred.

Niebuhr said that liberals defended democracy badly against children of darkness, who were wise and strong in their moral cynicism. The children of darkness understood self-interest terribly well and were not constrained by a moral law. Hobbes and Machiavelli provided theory for them, exemplifying the toxic corruption of a realism lacking a moral dimension. The epitome of toxic darkness, Nazi barbarism, plunged Europe into total war, shredding the classic liberal picture of a benign, individualistic society. Niebuhr derided the liberal idea that democracy fulfilled an ideal that people deserved on account of their moral worth. The children of darkness understood that will-to-power drives politics and history. This dialectic yielded Niebuhr’s most famous epigram, which the film features, with actor Hal Holbrook speaking for Niebuhr: “Man’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible, but man’s inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary.” Liberal democracy is worth defending because it is the best way to restrain human egotism and will-to-power, not because it fulfills an ideal.

In 1944, Niebuhr still believed that political democracy needed to grow into economic democracy to attain social justice and protect democracy itself. But he was almost done with saying so, and he no longer believed that his country was capable of socializing the economy, unlike what his Labour Party friends were about to do in England. In 1947 Niebuhr brought his Old Left friends into a new organization co-founded by Niebuhr, Eleanor Roosevelt, Hubert Humphrey, and other liberal Democratic stalwarts. The group was called the Americans for Democratic Action (ADA). The Old Leftists that came with Niebuhr were especially valuable to it because they were veterans of the battles to expel Communists from the trade unions and Socialist Party. The best anti-Communists were Socialists or former Socialists, because they hated Communism for ruining something they prized, and they knew how Communists subverted democratic organizations. They boasted that they were the experts on thwarting Communism.

Niebuhr provided this group’s signature version of anti-communist ideology, an argument he developed in tandem with State Department guru George Kennan. Fascism, Niebuhr reasoned, could be smashed by direct force because it lacked an inspiring ideal that transcended national boundaries. But Communism had the moral power of a utopian creed that appealed to deluded leftists and to millions in the Third World. Thus it had to be fought differently. America needed to walk a fine, patient, vigilant line between treating the Soviet state as a geopolitical Great Power rival and as an implacable Nazi-like enemy. Niebuhr hung a vast ideological scaffolding on this argument, teaching that Communism was an evil religion; it was devoted to the establishment of a new universal order, not merely the supremacy of a race or nation; and thus it had to be contained through diplomatic pressure and military force. He portrayed Communism as a devouring, evil, totalitarian monolith committed to world domination, until he had second thoughts about how that kind of language played out in American politics.

In 1952 Niebuhr wrote The Irony of American History, during his early Cold War phase. In the film, Bacevich presents his customary contention that this book is the most important work ever written on American foreign policy. One probably has to be a Niebuhrian realist to admire it that much. Certainly, Irony belongs in the canon of foreign policy realism. Niebuhr shrewdly deflated some of his nation’s pretentions, contending that America’s innocent self-image inoculated Americans from recognizing their nation’s imperialism. This innocence was functional for America’s imperial role, he said, except when it wasn’t. Irony made a case for a bit of modesty, countering the fearfully self-righteous mood of the time. But the point was to help America do a better job of running its empire.

During this period, Niebuhr implicitly condoned parts of Joseph McCarthy’s campaign to smoke Communists out of American government, education, and religion; he strongly supported the government’s execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg for stealing atomic secrets; and in a 1953 article for Look magazine, he wrongly claimed that McCarthy’s assistant, J. B. Matthews, accurately identified more than a dozen pro-Communist church leaders. At the time, FBI agents scoured Union Seminary and a flock of Old Left organizations for incriminating details about Niebuhr’s radical past. The film vividly conveys the sheer ugliness and meanness of the McCarthy period, with glimpses of Niebuhr’s massive FBI file. Long after Niebuhr let go of socialism, the FBI assumed that he was “still” a Communist.

Niebuhr cared deeply about racial justice and he wrote nearly a dozen articles about it, more than any white theologian of his generation. To the FBI, this factor alone was enough to convict a white American of being a Communist, because hardly any white Americans compared to the Communists in caring about racial justice, except for the white progressives in the NAACP. Niebuhr described racism as a form of self-worship that ignores the conditioned character of one’s life and culture. Racism feeds on the pretense that one’s race or culture represents a final good. Ultimately it is a spiritual issue, for the sin of racism is an especially toxic form of evil as egotism.

But Niebuhr never featured this subject in his major works, and he never gave it the high priority in his activism that he gave to pacifism in the 1920s, Marxian Socialism in the 1930s, anti-fascism and Vital Center liberalism in the 1940s, and anti-communism in the 1950s. Moreover, he was inordinately impressed with Gunnar Myrdal’s seminal work, An American Dilemma (1944), which recycled stereotypes about the supposed backwardness and pathology of black American culture, even as Myrdal opposed racial discrimination. Niebuhr did the same thing, asserting that black American culture was backward and distorted on account of discrimination. On one occasion he even equivocated on biological racism, writing in 1958: “If we are right in defining this backwardness as cultural rather than biological, it will of course be cured in time by equal opportunities of education.”

Cornel West, in the film, points to the baleful influence of English conservative doyen Edmund Burke on Niebuhr’s mind in the 1950s, which yielded much warning against pushing too hard to effect social change. In my view, Burke reinforced Niebuhr’s deep misgivings about causing social mayhem and committing the sin of false righteousness. The latter peril, which is especially dreaded in Lutheran theology, has a way of turning on itself, as it did in Niebuhr’s case. He said that when white liberal Christians apologized to African Americans or Jews for the sins of white America, they won moral points for humility and contrition, but wrongly. Confessions of this sort were dictated by pride; thus they carried a whiff of hypocrisy. Instead of expressing a real confession, the penitent communicated his or her moral superiority. Repeatedly, Niebuhr warned Northern white liberals to go slow on this account.

The 1956 presidential campaign was a low point for liberalism and the civil rights movement. The Brown decision inflamed the South; the busing issue was singular and easily mitigated after the Montgomery boycott; Martin Luther King Jr. didn’t know what to try next; and President Eisenhower did nothing after the Brown decision came down, since he opposed it anyway. Niebuhr had the ear of Democratic candidate Adlai Stevenson, and he urged Stevenson to say nothing that outflanked Eisenhower on civil rights. The following year, King asked Niebuhr to support a petition asking Eisenhower to enforce the Brown decision in the South. Niebuhr turned him down, explaining that he opposed anything smacking of Yankee interference or moral presumption. Liberals needed to slow down and wait for “the slow erosion of racial prejudice” to do its work. At every showing of the film at which I have spoken, the audience gasped at this point.

On only one occasion in the late 1950s did Niebuhr throw realistic caution aside—when he called out Billy Graham. Niebuhr had a very low opinion of Graham’s evangelistic enterprise, which he expressed plainly on numerous occasions. He was appalled that for millions of Americans, Billy Graham represented Christianity. But in 1956, near the end of a typical slam on Graham, Niebuhr switched to moral exhortation, urging Graham to do something ethically useful with his fame.

In his early career Graham preached to segregated audiences, assuring that Jesus had no opinion on the matter. Then for three years he zigged and zagged on segregation, sometimes standing against it, sometimes backsliding, until the Brown decision, after which he preached only to integrated audiences. Niebuhr admonished him to go further, preaching against racial prejudice and Jim Crow.

For years afterward Graham struggled with Niebuhr’s challenge, as he later acknowledged. Graham’s record during the Civil Rights movement was highly ambiguous and loaded with ironic complexity, unlike the whitewashed things he later said about it. But notice the liberal righteousness problem. Niebuhr called out Graham publicly, stressing that the most violently racist sections of the country were the ones that had the most revivals. He challenged Graham to an extraordinarily difficult task entailing dangers and burdens from which Niebuhr was far removed. Niebuhr had no contact with Graham’s audiences, and by the 1950s he faced little prospect of confronting angry crowds of any kind. But even in his rarefied world of seminaries and lectureships, Niebuhr did not take the risk that he prescribed for Graham, that of challenging his group to interrogate its racism.

Asking white liberals in the 1950s to confront their racism would not have gone well. It would have evoked, for Niebuhr, the kind of hostility that Graham confronted constantly, even as Graham tried not to offend the moral pride of his audience. Liberals took pride in having no racial biases; that was what made them liberals. Niebuhr assumed the problem for whites was to eliminate racial bias. He had no concept of white supremacism as a structure of power based on privilege that presumes to define what is normal. The closest that he came to viewing the issue in structural terms occurred in writings in which he lamented the supposed inferiority of African-American culture and other non-white societies.

Niebuhr argued that the human capacity for free and responsible agency is the highest expression of humanity’s spiritual nature and destiny. Only individuals can do that, for groups have no capacity for self-transcendence. Groups cannot organize for ethical ends; they simply seek to preserve themselves. But Niebuhr said that backward cultures do not recognize the existence of individuals. This idea existed only in advanced societies. The dominant white culture of the U.S.A. nurtured and prized individuality; thus, African Americans could achieve moral agency only by being allowed to do so by the dominant society and by overcoming the backward pathologies of their culture. On this theme, Niebuhr waxed routinely on “talented exceptions,” very much in the vein of “Talented Tenth” propaganda.

This recycling of a baleful tradition violated Niebuhr’s own theological maxim against treating any social order or scheme as ethically normative or inscribed with divine favor. Black Americans were told, in effect, that to become actualized moral agents, they had to become culturally white. Though Niebuhr hated white racism, he did not recognize that white supremacism was the deeper problem because he took for granted the superiority of Euro-American culture and democracy. Very few white liberals of his time got further than that.

The film shines in conveying Niebuhr’s marriage to Ursula Keppel-Compton Niebuhr, his friendship with Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, and his brotherly love for theologian H. Richard Niebuhr. Niebuhr met Ursula Keppel-Compton during her year as an English Fellow at Union, 1930-31. They had one of the great marriages. She taught religion at Barnard College, smoothened his later writings, and became his caretaker when he suffered a stroke in 1952. Her legendarily caustic wit and her devotion to Niebuhr are vividly noted in the film.

On Niebuhr’s friendship with Rabbi Heschel, Susannah Heschel explains compellingly that her father experienced a mutual understanding with Niebuhr that each theologian did not experience with others. Their friendship began with Niebuhr’s discerning review of Heschel’s book, Man Is Not Alone (1951), after which they bonded over spiritual theology, the Hebrew prophets, and Israel, although Heschel did not plunge into social justice activism until the 1960s, when Niebuhr was too ill to accompany him.

Niebuhr’s closest friend was his younger brother Richard. They were so close and private about their relationship that the film relies on Sifton to convey family lore. Richard Niebuhr taught at Yale, wrote classic theological works, and looked out for his famous older brother. Both brothers struggled with depression, but Richard had it worse. Richard’s books were more carefully written and reasoned; the Niebuhr family regarded Richard as the better theologian; and whenever Reinhold wrote a book, the reaction that he prized far above all others was that of his brother.

There will be more Niebuhr revivals in years to come, because Reinhold Niebuhr is the icon of a perennial quandary: How should one hold together the things of Jesus and the things of Machiavelli? More broadly, how can any morally responsible citizen or political leader hold fast to moral principles while safeguarding the interests of the nation? Niebuhr never gave a pat answer to these questions, but everything he wrote wrestled with them. An American Conscience notes that Niebuhr fretted over John F. Kennedy’s lack of a personal moral core. This worry hit close to home, because Niebuhr was a partisan Democrat and several Kennedy officials were adept at quoting Niebuhr. Now we have a president who specializes in racist demagoguery, brandishes a hyper-nationalist agenda, and evinces no discernible moral core whatsoever, and Niebuhr is timely again.